Herman Melville and Maria Mitchell

On January 21st, the Nantucket Atheneum hosted a twenty-four hour reading of Moby-Dick. Not only did it seem like a fun thing to participate in and show MMA support for our library, but for MMA it was a way to celebrate yet another connection between Maria Mitchell and some of the most well-known authors of her day. Thus, Andrew McKenna-Foster, Director of Natural Science Education and Programs; Janet Schulte, MMA’s Executive Director; and myself, the Curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections, signed ourselves up to read consecutive chapters – Chapters 8-13 of Moby-Dick. While Janet was unable to make it, our Financial Administrator Joan Stockman ably stepped in. It was snowing – a lot – but we all made it to Town for the event!

You might wonder what or how Maria could be connected to Melville. Funnily, they share the same birthday – although Melville was born a year later on August 1, 1819. He did not travel to Nantucket until after he had written Moby-Dick (which was pretty much a publishing failure when it was first published in 1851). But when he did in the summer of 1852, he spent some time visiting the famous woman astronomer and her father and family at the Pacific National Bank where they were then living. I like to think that he sat in William’s armchair which we have, as it was the most comfortable seat in the house. Maria was renowned throughout the world as America’s first woman astronomer – her discovery of a telescopic comet in 1847 having solidified that position.

This meeting must have remained with Melville for in 1891, when Melville wrote his poem “After the Pleasure Party,” he included the character “Urania” which some scholars believe is modeled after Maria. Urania is an astronomer in the poem and she is torn between her passion for science and a man she saw in the Mediterranean. Ironically, or maybe not, Maria travelled through Italy in 1858 with Melville’s good friend, author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family. Hawthorne must also have been influenced by Maria because she found her way into one of his works as well. There is an allusion to her in his The Marble Faun.

Now, one has to wonder if Maria did indeed befriend a gentleman along the Mediterranean – someone whom Hawthorne was aware of (himself? another?) and recounted this to Melville … Oh the possibilities that play in my head!